When speaking of Swiss wine, it is difficult to find a common definition, since the four national languages and their cultural heritage result in different interpretations of winemaking. In the north, German is spoken; in the south on the Italian border, Italian; and in the west, near the border of France, French. The fourth language is Romanisch. Switzerland consists of 26 cantons, where cultivation of vines is unevenly spread.
At a glance
In Switzerland, nearly 15,000 ha of vines are cultivated, representing about half of the Champagne area, or only 0.2% of the global area planted with vines.
The country is divided into six official wine regions: Valais, at 5,113 ha; Vaud, 3,838 ha; German-speaking Switzerland, with 2,593 ha; Geneva, 1,297 ha; Ticino, 1,065 ha; and the Three Lakes region, 940 ha. Almost 60% of Swiss vineyards are planted with red grape varieties: Pinot Noir is number one, with 1,800 ha; Gamay, which is very popular in Geneva and Vaud; and Merlot, which almost 100 years ago found a home in Ticino. For the whites, Chasselas is number one at 4,013 ha, followed by Müller-Thurgau, and then Chardonnay.
The majority of Swiss wine – 75% – is produced in the western, French part of the country, where most of it is also drunk. Here, wine is as much a part of everyday life as pepper and salt in the kitchen. Anyone who orders a coffee at 11:00 o’clock in the morning betrays themselves as either a foreigner, or a ‘Swiss German’, because at that time of the day, un verre de vin blanc is more appropriate.
Manners are quite different in the German-speaking region. The first glass of wine is usually ordered at 6:00 pm, and Swiss wine is not king of all the wine lists. Swiss German wine-drinkers love wines from Italy, France and Spain and, in general, are much more open than their French counterparts. Stores and wine shops are full of wines from around the world, with hardly a region that’s not represented or an oenological trend that cannot be discovered. In Ticino, things look much as they do in the Swiss French part – the local wine is king, along with wines from neighbouring Italy.
Of the approximately 1.07m hL of wine that’s annually produced, 95% is consumed in the country – making Switzerland a global exception among producer countries.
“Swiss vineyards are relatively small in comparison with the Swiss population that loves to drink wine,” explains Gilles Besse, president of Swiss Wine Promotion. “We only produce around 40% of the total wine consumed per year. The remaining 60% is imported from different wine countries. Unfortunately, there is very little wine left for export.”
The annual per capita consumption in Switzerland is about 36 L a year – a figure that has dropped in recent years, as it has in other traditional wine-producing countries. Still, Switzerland remains a country very interested in wine, with a very developed wine market and wine consumers who are very knowledgeable about the wines they buy.
Wine is mainly bought in supermarkets, led by Coop and Denner and followed by Volg, Aldi, Lidl, Spar, Manor and Globus. A third of the imported wine comes from Italy – from the traditional regions such as Tuscany, Veneto and Piedmont, as well as from southern regions, such as Sicily and Puglia. Amarone and Prosecco are Swiss favourites.
Every fourth imported bottle is from France. More than 23,000 different French wines are sold in Switzerland and every third wine costs between 34CHF ($36.00) and 75 CHF ($80.00); the average price is approximately $9.00. The number three country after Italy and France is Spain, followed by Portugal, South Africa, the US, Germany and Chile.
Although most wineries are open to the public and also sell directly, much of the wine drunk in Switzerland is bought through retail or the on-trade. Two-thirds of Swiss wines sold by the wine trade cost between 15CHF and 34CHF, a price range that is comparatively high, at least compared to neighbouring countries. Most Swiss wine producers sell their wines at these top prices, but not much higher – even the top cuvées.
So, unlike in other wine producing countries, Switzerland does not really produce any very expensive wines. But there are also no cheap wines under 5CHF, as there are in southern France or Italy. Labour is too expensive and most of the vineyards have to be treated by hand, and not machinery, because of the topography of the country. “It is wrong to say that Swiss Wine is expensive – we are just not cheap,” says Besse. “For the money you spend you get a very high quality that is almost unique.”
One characteristic of Swiss wine is the extraordinary diversity of grape varieties and the large number of indigenous grapes, which are rarely found in other countries. Most of these varieties are found in Valais, the largest winegrowing region of Switzerland. This area is a region of contrasts. It has glaciers and palm trees, saffron and cheese, Chasselas and Heida. With almost 5,200 ha of vineyards, Valais produces about a third of Switzerland’s total production. Along with the main varieties of Pinot Noir and Chasselas – here called Fendant – there are more than 50 different local and indigenous grapes, such as Petite Arvine, Heida, Humagne Rouge, Humagne Blanche or Cornalin.
In the neighbouring canton Vaud, the second-largest winegrowing region, the scenery looks completely different. While Valais is marked by diversity, here everything turns on the Chasselas grape, with 67% of the
region, or 2,365 ha, planted with it. In 2009, a DNA analysis done by Dr José Vouillamoz of the University of Neuchâtel revealed that the origins of the Chasselas are in Vaud itself and not, as previously thought, Egypt or Turkey.
The canton of Vaud is composed of the following wine regions: La Côte; Lavaux, a protected UNESCO world heritage site; Chablais; Côtes de l’Orbe; Vully and Bonvillars. Most wines are not labelled by the varietal Chasselas, but by the name of the village, the home community or the vineyard it comes from, like in Burgundy. Examples include St. Saphorin, Yvorne, Aigle, Féchy, Dézaley or Epesses. The best wines have their origins in terraced vineyards along Lake Geneva. Chasselas is an aromatic, delicate and rather neutral grape variety that responds very quickly to the different soils or climatic conditions, making it ideal for Switzerland.
The third-largest wine region is in German-speaking Switzerland. The most important wine cantons are: Zurich, 613 ha; Schaffhausen, 473 ha; Graubünden, 419 ha; Aargau 393 ha; as well as Appenzell, 4.8 ha; Zug, 2.3 ha; and Glarus, 1.7 ha. Nineteen cantons are united in this wine region. The main variety here is Pinot Noir, while Müller-Thurgau plays an important role for white wines.
The best Pinot Noir comes from Graubünden, known as ‘Switzerland’s Burgundy’, where 80% of the vineyards are planted with the grape. The optimum ripeness of the grapes is due to the warm Föhn winds known as ‘Traubenkocher’. Looking at how Pinot Noir got to Switzerland makes you realise very quickly that this is a very old wine country; the sun-drenched vineyards at the foot of the steep mountain slopes have always been ideal for viticulture. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Church continued to manage the vineyards, which means that grapes have been cultivated continuously in Graubünden for 2000 years.
The fourth-largest winegrowing region of Geneva, in western Switzerland, is also marked by diversity, with 60% of the vineyards being red. Gamay, Pinot Noir, Gamaret, Garanoir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah are the dominant grapes. For the whites, there are Chasselas, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Aligoté. In Geneva, the majority of vines grow on gentle south-facing slopes that are protected from the Jura mountains.
The fifth-largest wine region is Italian-speaking Ticino, where 90% of the 1,065 ha of vineyards are planted with Merlot. Ticino is divided by the Monte Ceneri in two major wine regions: the northern Sopraceneri and the southern Sottoceneri. In no other wine region in Switzerland can you find such a diversity of Merlot wines as in the southern canton of the country. The varietal celebrated its 100th anniversary in Switzerland in 2006, as it was grafted on the phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks in 1906.
The sixth and smallest winegrowing area is that of the Three Lakes region. Actually it should be called “three lakes, two languages and four cantons”, since it combines Neuchâtel, Biel, Vully and Jura. The spoken language varies from German to French, and Pinot Noir and Chasselas are the main grapes cultivated here. A rosé wine made from Pinot Noir, known as Oeil de Perdrix, is typical of the region.
Compared to other wine countries, Switzerland has so far been blessed with a healthy market where most of its own production is sold, even while it imports a lot of wine – despite the fact that consumption is continuously falling. And the local wines will probably remain in Switzerland, as the strong Swiss Franc is bad for exports, though good for imports.
Overall, Switzerland is a country of consensus – or at least one which searches for consensus – a land of precision and the pursuit of high quality. The Swiss are held together by the necessity to preserve the unique and heterogeneous structure of their federation, which can sometimes make change difficult and evolution slow.
“We have to learn to be proud of our wine culture and also show this unique wine region to the world,” says Besse. “We have so many rarities and have also started to apply integrated production since the 1970s. Switzerland wine is a big secret that we are ready to share.”
Nevertheless, the best way at the moment to discover and taste Swiss wine is still by visiting the country and exploring the huge diversity that comes from such a small place.
Ten biggest retailers for wine in Switzerland
Coop: 33.9m L
Denner: 32.6m L
Bataillard: 8.9m L
Cave Garnier: 6.5 m L
Lidl: 3.7m L
Weinkellereien Aarau: 3.5 m L
Aldi: 3.2m L
Vini Bée: 3.1m L
Weinwelt Schweiz: 2.7m L
Scherrer & Bühler: 2.7m L
Source: Bundesamt für Landwirtschaft, Bern